Gentleman: The William Powell Story

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William Powell in a publicity photo from My Man Godfrey

Few of the legendary movies stars of the first half of this century were personally capable of equaling the glittering images they projected with the help of studio publicists and the roles they played on the silver screen. William Powell was a notable exception to that rule.

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William Powell was a private man.  He was a public figure and yet a complex, private man.  Therefore the task before biographer Charles Francisco was a challenging one.  Certainly there were plenty of stories in popular Hollywood magazines of the era, tabloid features and interviews, but views into his private life were limited.  He married three times and fathered one child, a son, who tragically committed suicide in 1968.  Aside from his third wife, these significant figures had long departed and there is no indication that wife Diana Lewis chose to reveal the private man. His closest friends, who included Richard Barthelmess and Ronald Colman, had long departed; he outlived almost all of them but Myrna Loy.  In fact Powell himself died during Francisco’s research.  Yet the author has done a remarkable job in giving us a solid sense of William Powell, the essence of the man and of his life; it was one filled with satisfying successes, occasional frustrations and sometimes all too public tragedies.

 

 

 

 

Famously, Powell married and divorced Carole Lombard, then became engaged to Jean Harlow, remaining so until her death at age twenty-six.  He grieved openly at her funeral, flanked by his mother and a studio attaché for support.  Her death ushered in a period of struggle for Powell.  Shortly after this profoundly difficult loss he was faced with another crisis, rectal cancer.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer softened the blow for the public, citing his long absence from the screen as due to colon cancer, relating few details; the actor was one of the first patients to undergo treatment with implanted radium.  This combination of blows – the death of Harlow, two surgeries and a lengthy recovery – perhaps deprived us of additional films that might have added to his legacy.  His absence took him into middle-age and some unfortunate type-casting.

 

 

 

Powell became a comedic success with The Thin Man, the role for which he is perhaps best remembered.  Its popularity led to further Thin Man films, six in total, and while he certainly enjoyed the role, and was surely grateful for its gifts, he knew he was capable of much more.  Happily he was later able to show his range in several highly successful and still memorable films, namely Life with Father, How to Marry a Millionaire and finally Mister Roberts.  Portraying the wise and weary ‘Doc’ in the latter put Powell among a new generation of actors and before new audiences.  Yet the on-location shoot tired him and he chose to bow out, departing from the screen at the age of 62.  He eventually left this world for good thirty years later. In doing so he left behind a sweeping body of work that starts in the silent era, polishes many pre-Codes and ultimately enchants in some of the most enduring romantic comedies of the thirties and forties.

 

 

If you are a fan of Powell’s, as I am, this book is one to search out and find. The tone is warm and measured, never salacious or engaging in sordid speculation, despite Powell’s romancing and co-starring with some of the most beautiful and sought after women of the early days of Hollywood. Francisco treats his subject, and the numerous Hollywood luminaries and fellow players he encounters, with respect and admiration, pulling from available files, newspaper and magazine articles, archives and Powell’s own writings. In doing so he constructs a portrait of a man who was far from perfect but generally well-intended and truly the gentleman that he hoped to be.  Known as a movie star, he was first an actor and an absolute master of his craft.

I was sad to reach this book’s end for to do so was to leave behind a life well-lived.  Powell is painted as a man who didn’t always have the answers but who sure as hell tried to find them.  This was a lovely, satisfying and moving book. I highly recommend it.

Gentleman: The William Powell Story includes a filmography and two sections of black and white photographs. It is book-ended by a prologue and epilogue, with the first and last paragraphs shared here, suitably opening and closing this review.

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Perhaps Myrna Loy, who co-starred with most of the movie legends, described Bill Powell best.  She said, “There’s just nobody like him, and there’s never been anybody quite like him.”  Unfortunately, in the course of contemporary film, we may never see his like again.

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This post is the third in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer! This book is available through Amazon and other used and vintage booksellers.

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Take Your Place At the Table: Dinner At Eight*

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An MGM Production ~ Director: George Cukor, Screenplay:  Francis Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz from the stage play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Art Director: Hobe Erwin and Frederic Hope, Costume Designer: Adrian

Dinner At Eight is a movie that sneaks up on you. I found myself taking an interest in the characters right away and yet the association between many of these players is oh so slowly established, at least for a pre-Code film. I believe that speaks to the array of talent that parades across the screen. It seems like every time someone opens a door or answers the phone a new star enters the picture. MGM threw the stable at this one and ended up with a gem.

The movie takes place in a series of vignettes with characters and stories intersecting on- and off-screen in sometimes relatively separate ways until the final few scenes. There are as many stories here as there are seats at the table and a number of smaller side ones that intersect.  Tantalizingly we hear about a dinner party throughout this entire film which never occurs in front of our eyes. The promise is held before us. Time and time again it is referenced and yet we never experience it for ourselves.  One central character doesn’t even make it to the table. Once the remainder of our main players do the door is shut. We are not privy to their stories as they continue to unfold and yet there is no doubt that they do. Dinner at Eight is about the punches that life throws you as our stories unfold and the ability to either roll with those punches or take those hits to head and heart and fall.  Some of us get hit a little harder than others.

In the tradition of Grand Hotel the star-studded cast consists of the brothers Barrymore, Lionel and John, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke, Madge Evans, Lee Tracy and more.  I’m sure great debates could take place as to who is the central character in this film and I’m sure they have.  With an array of talent this stunning it would be tempting to say there is no primary story or star.  In many ways this is truly an ensemble piece, one that lets each actor and actress shine.  There’s a supportive spirit to this production that may not indicate camaraderie so much as the edge and grace that comes with competitiveness; each actor and actress appearing at the top of their game, even with the smaller roles.  George Cukor used his directorial magic to bring out the best in his dazzling cast (as we shall see him do again with The Women and other productions where he brilliantly juggles stars). Yet despite the ensemble nature of this film, John Barrymore’s performance, due to its sheer courage and his tremendous talent, is central to capturing the movie’s essence.

Cukor and Barrymore shared a wonderful camaraderie that underscored the director’s respect for the theatrically-trained actor, and performers in general.  As Larry Renault, the aging, dissipated and failing actor, Barrymore admitted to basing the betrayal not only on Lowell Sherman and Maurice Costello (film actor and father-in-law to John) but also himself.  He shrewdly added lines and details to the characterization to bring the portrayal closer to his own life.  It cuts so wickedly close to the heart of Barrymore’s troubles, aging and rapidly so as his excessive alcohol consumption eroded his talent, personal life and finances, that it is breathtaking.  Yet Barrymore is able to expand upon this and give us a larger performance that illuminates the inner struggles of a man much closer to desperation than himself, one so true in its depiction of emotional pain that his ultimate decision makes perfect sense as the only perceived solution for this man, at this time.  Renault takes one hit after another, swinging wildly from mood to mood with increasing inebriation, yet he leaves on his terms, not in the dark but in the spotlight, the only spotlight he can still muster.

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As the traditional, old fashioned and fading businessman Oliver Jordan, Lionel Barrymore struggles with change and impending failure but more importantly with affliction and the pain of disease, doing so with greater grace and dignity than Renault.  Jordan keeps the knowledge of his severe health issues entirely private even from his wife and daughter, until his doctor breaks confidence (something that would never happen today).  Interestingly troubles with health mirror this Barrymore’s own real life hits as well.  Lionel was able to cope far better than his brother John but did so despite suffering through physical limitations and the unending pain caused by two falls resulting in a severely broken hip.  Some say he contended with arthritis as early as the late 1920’s and it was the combination of both the arthritis and the falls that led to hourly injections of painkillers during filming from 1938 onward.  Lionel Barrymore’s disability was so great that it required him to be wheelchair-bound for his most enduring role as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life as he was so confined by this time in his own life. In Dinner At Eight while John’s Renault was not able to roll with the punches, Lionel’s Jordan is able to do so.  He was in fact also there for John in real life during some of his brother’s weaker moments.

Tragically life had a surprising blow in the wings for another of the stars of this film, Jean Harlow.  It is always so interesting to watch Harlow in retrospect, so full of life, sass and sweetness. Here Harlow engages in plenty of name-calling of spouse and servants, of the type rarely heard today and used in particular to delineate the true nature of the marriage of Dan and Kitty Packard (Beery and Harlow). As he also does in Grand Hotel, Beery plays overbearing and conniving well. It is certainly convincing that he would’ve married Harlow out of lust alone; his business model is also a crass and crude affair signifying the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. As it is clear that he had this relationship with little respect for her it seems perfectly fitting that she should have no respect for him. Their contempt for one another is believable yet played unbelievably for comic effect. Such was Harlow’s gift that we enjoy her outrageous comedic wrath and dishing back to the high-handed pompousness that is epitomized by Packard. While the movie ends with the promise that life has much in store for Kitty, as film lovers we know that is not the case for Harlow as she is cruelly hit by life’s capriciousness just four years later.

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There’s great contrast here between the impetuousness of youth and the weariness and wisdom of aging, the healthy and the well, new business models versus harsh newer methods, those whose lives are just beginning and those whose stories are coming to a close, with some unable to appreciate what they have and those aging or ill left to handle life’s blows or succumb.  The young daughter of the Jordan’s, Paula (Madge Evans), just 19, is in love with Renault, a man dying from the battering of life, yet having the whole of hers still ahead of her. As he tells her: “You’re young and fresh and I’m all burned up.”  Shortly  her lover is verbally assaulted with the words “You’re a corpse and you don’t know it. Go get yourself buried” by his own agent (Lee Tracy), a man who should, for all intents, be in his corner but has become exasperated by the behavior of his ‘talent’.  Paula is engaged to Ernest (Phillips Holmes), a fitting name, yet finds the prospect of marriage to him a monotonous bore.  When Paula finally attempts to break off her engagement, the burning fireplace in the background reminds us of the cold fireplace in  Renault’s room, imparting death as the fire framed by the two of them roars with life, intimating that love could still be passionate between these two although Paula is oblivious to the possibilities. Nevertheless when her attempt to escape the strictures of upper-class life comes to an end she is heartbroken but wisely guided by Marie Dressler to open her eyes and embrace the love that is there before her with Ernest, advising “he won’t want to know anything about your past, as long as you keep it in the past”.

I love Dressler but I can sometimes find her distracting with her exaggerated facial mannerisms persisting into the talkies. I do tend to favor the melodramatic acting style of the 30’s and 40’s but so many of her expressions sometimes appear to be holdovers from the work she did in silent films, distracting from her inherent depth and warmth.  But here the comedic effects are a nice touch in a movie that is heavy on dramatic situations.  Never a beauty, she makes a pragmatic and powerful supporting player, as an aging, formerly glamorous star, fittingly pulling this tale together.  “That’s the unfortunate thing about death. It’s so terribly final.  Even the young can’t do anything about it” declares a wild eyed Dressler.  Once again the movie casts the actor in a role which mirrors life itself. Dressler died one year later from cancer.

As Millicent Jordan, Billie Burke’s histrionics regarding the setbacks she endures in planning and executing this dinner party are comical yet pivotal.  Her extreme exasperation in the face of truly minor set-backs and trivial frustrations (the kind we all experience), underscores the tragic depths of the circumstances of others.  As her plans are thwarted I was reminded of the saying regarding the best laid plans, some of which are long past their time, or poorly conceived affairs from the start. All of these characters have plans and aspirations, few of which come to fruition. Stalled and stalemated at every turn, they are oblivious to the struggles of others. How little Millicent knows of the desperateness of those in her own house, let alone those in the outside world. Such is life.

I adored this film, though it may not be for everyone. But if you like your deeper meanings and profound truths interspersed with sweet and sassy one liners and innuendo, you may enjoy this one too.

This movie had its beginnings in the stage play scripted by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, (as adapted by Francis Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz), as is readily apparent from the sparkling dialogue and steady stream of quips. For those who love language these types of films are a treasure trove that hold up well, in fact demand repeated viewing. This is a movie I could watch over and over.  There are layers of meaning and multiple interpretations to be found here.  The binding thread that life can crush you through unexpected blows is certainly owned by John Barrymore.  Yet also highlighted is the role of relationship, epitomized nicely in the marriage of the Jordans.  Despite all that befalls them in the course of the day, with business complications, medical woes and dinner party snafus galore, they end the movie unified, as do Paula and Ernest; lack of relationship is what eventually does in Renault as his only real relationship is with the bottle.

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I was so looking forward to seeing John Barrymore, center table and in full court, at this elusive dinner party. Firmly advised to check out of his lavish hotel room, Renault instead chooses to check out with finality, leaving his latest lover with barely a thought; there have been so many and yet so few truly loved.  No matter that he has accelerated his demise through his drinking.  The combination of circumstance and squandered opportunities gives his departure an air of tragic inevitability.
This all sounds so very serious and yet it isn’t at all. The movie has a lighthearted feel due to the flow between scenes, the crackling dialogue and the comic touches. Harlow is a hoot. She plays her Red-Headed Woman character to the hilt but this time leaving absolutely no room for sympathy. This woman is no Vantine from Red Dust with a heart of gold.  Kitty’s future trajectory is fairly well summarized in the closing dialogue of this movie, delivered deliciously by Dressler.

This film has some great lines and Dressler has quite a few of them.  She’s had her turn as have the two Barrymore’s. Now it’s time for the younger players to take their places. To quote Auntie Mame:  “Life is a banquet. And most poor suckers are starving to death”.  A banquet for some but perhaps not for all.  I remember a time when in church the pastor would declare, “Welcome to the Lords Table”.  Did I hear him say Dinner At Eight?

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